25 November 2005

Pie Dreaming: A Deconstruction of My Coming of Age as My Father's Oldest Son

Apple, pumpkin, blueberry, and--in a minute or two--coconut custard. For most people, Thanksgiving is about turkey and stuffing, though some people refer to it mysteriously as "dressing" as if it went on the outside of the bird, cranberry sauce, football, and of course mashed potatoes and gravy.

For my family, it's all about the pie.

When we were little, my dad discovered that he didn't like most coconut custard pies. The ones from the bakery, in addition to having crusts that weighed about as much as the Hindenburg, had the wrong texture. They weren't....well, custardy. In order for a coconut custard pie to meet my father's strict epicurean standard, it needed to have a distinctly custard-like texture, smoother than pudding, almost as creamy as the filling in a Boston cream doughnut (and those were another story). Which meant two things. The first one was the obvious detail of cooking it in a water bath, which most large-scale bakeries no longer bothered to do. But the second is where my father's quirkiness started to show through. You see, my father liked his coconut custard pie with the coconut floating on the top. This meant that the baker had to pay close attention during baking, regardless of the fact that he or she might be slicing apples or rolling out another pie crust or even mashing potatoes while the custard simmered away in its water bath. Halfway through the baking time, the oven opened, out came the pie, and on went the coconut, thus giving the custard time to set, enough to hold the weight of the flakes of coconut.

But that wasn't the half of it. My father also knew the deep truth about pie-making: there is nothing more criminal than a soggy crust. Lusciously soaked in apple and cinnamon and nutmeg, yes. Soggy from drowning under three cups of egg and milk and sugar, not so much. No, my father insisted on baking the pie shell for his beloved coconut custard separately. Surely he's not the only cook in the world to do this, because there exist such exotic things as clay-moulded pie weights (though why anyone would need anything other than a one-pound bag of pinto beans and a length of aluminum foil is beyond me to this day. They're just as reusable, too; my father has had the same bag of "pie beans" for more than thirty years.) This isn't the weirdness. The weirdness is what comes next.

One would think that an empty pie shell and a fully-cooked coconut custard filling would not be too hard to merge. One would be, in this case, gravely mistaken. The obvious problem is the aesthetic one: an upside down custard is a vulnerable thing at best. At its worst it's pockmarked, pale, watery, and prone to weeping. Failing that, it also doesn't fit snugly into its crust, like a child's fist does into a mitten. Even if it did, the coconut would all be on the bottom, which defeats the obsessive-compulsive routine of pulling the pie out half-baked to add the eponymous ingredient. No, this does not do at all. In order for a coconut custard pie to be a proper coconut custard pie, at least if you were born a Monahan, the pie must undergo a transformation that defies all logic (and occasionally gravity.) The pie must be slud.

That was not a typo. Perhaps it was my father's own coming of age in the fifties, in Brooklyn. Or maybe it was the fact that my mother's a die-hard Mets fan. Her theory is that it comes from "they woulda had him at second, but he slud." Regardless of the etymology, it is the only word that adequately describes the precariousness and absurdity of the entire pie undertaking. The baked custard must be slud, with a flourish, like an omelette from a pan, but it must be slud not onto a plate, but into a waiting pie crust. Furthermore, this bit of acrobatics must be performed at the holiday table during coffee, in front of the entire family, including friends, orphaned neighbours going through divorces, and inevitably a priest or two. This heightens the drama, raising the stakes from simple culinary manouevre to a sort of dessert as theatre.
It takes equal parts caution and frivolity, care and sang-froid, control and a damn the torpedoes kind of attitude. What's the worst that can happen? The entire custard could land in Aunt Doris's lap? Not likely, unless the tablecloth is greased. No, the realistic worst-case scenario is ugly enough, and it's happened more than once. I'm not describing a dessert that looks more like a quiche, or even scrambled eggs. What I'm talking about here is swearing in front of your mother.

Pie-sludding was always my father's honour. It was always the high point of Thanksgiving dinner, even more exciting for us girls than getting to finally listen to Christmas carols on the drive home. It was sometimes the only time the whole extended clan was actually around the table together, instead of snoozing or watching the game or off in Patrick's room playing whatever video game was cool that year. Just when we were getting bored, someone would call down the hallway that Jackie was getting ready to do the pie. And off we would go, joystick dangling and the enemy shooting at us undefended, obliterating us in a fireball of epic proportion.

Then one year it happened. No, not a custard-wearing catastrophe. Grad school. More specifically, grad school in Spokane, three thousand miles away from the family table in Staten Island. One night in May, shortly before I packed up my Volvo wagon and drove across I-90, I came downstairs to find my father in the kitchen, stirring something and peering intently into the double-boiler. I sniffed. This could mean only one thing. Coconut custard pie--but completely out of season. It was the one thing he gave me when I left for Washington, except for his father's Estwing hammer that was older than I was. When I went away to NYU at 18, it was advice about drugs and birth control and not getting mugged. When I left for Spokane, he didn't say a word. He just taught me how to slud the pie.

Ever since then, the pie has been my duty and my honour to bring to the family table. We don't go to Staten Island anymore; only two of us live there. The cousins have all married or gone off to reform school (or both), divorce has taken some people to Florida or Easton, and our grandparents are long dead. For a long time I continued the pie ritual at my own parents' house, in the enormous plaid kitchen where my mother spends two-thirds of her day, not because of the stove but because of the massive oak table where she reads or does her crossword in the southern exposure. I got married nine weeks ago to a chef, a beloved, funny man with long blond hair and a goatee who loves to sing Doors songs while he shuffles back and forth from oven to counter to sink, lining his favourite knives up like toy soldiers next to the cutting board. We didn't have Thanksgiving on Thanksgiving; apparently that's something I'm going to have to get used to. On a holiday that's traditionally all about food, if you're a chef, you're at work. If you're a chef's wife, you're curled at home under an afghan, reading a novel and trying not to think about what you're missing while every family around you in this nation is sitting down to their tables and feasting. You're waiting, for the restaurant to close, for the truck to pull into the driveway, for your husband to slump in through the kitchen door, his whites rumpled and mottled with stains from the night's specials.

Tomorrow our family is coming up. The whole family. Mine, and his. Because my husband is who he is, there will be turkey, a ham, stuffing with and without mushrooms, sweet and mashed potatoes, two kinds of corn, string beans, cranberry relish, cream of carrot soup, homemade rolls, and whatever else he thinks up between now and then.

But dessert is my department.

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